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Playing by the Rules.


IN 1926, WHEN Agatha Christie published The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, she ignited a huge controversy that in many quarters continues until today. The long history of the question, "Does Agatha Christie play fair with the reader?" began with her pulling off one of the most famous--or, if you prefer, notorious--tricks ever perpetuated on readers. In the nearly four decades since the first Sherlock Holmes story had appeared, the narrative pattern Arthur Conan Doyle borrowed from Edgar Allan Poe had become the common way to construct the detective mystery. The point of view of Poes genius detective, the Chevalier Auguste Dupin, would reveal too much of the significance of clues. It would deracinate the tension derived from challenging the reader to match Dupin's thinking process. By using an anonymous narrator to describe Dupin's enigmatic behavior, Poe avoided this. Doyle improved the strategy by adding personality to the narrators role, creating Watson, who stands in for the reader in trying to decipher the clues and in reacting to Holmes's insights. A great detective and his admiring narrator became the standard way of setting up the mystery game. Baroness Orczy's irascible Old Man in the Corner elucidates crimes to journalist Polly Burton; Lord Peter Wimsey has his Harriet Vane. There are dozens of others. Some authors varied the pattern a bit, but by the publication of Roger Ackroyd, such a narrative strategy was a standard modus operandi.

Christie, however, pulled a fast one. Hercule Poirot, a standardly oddball Holmes with a waxed mustache, frequently had a Watson in the character of Arthur Hastings, a Great War veteran who is the narrator of Christie's first published novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), seven later novels, and many of her Poirot short stories. Perhaps chafing at the tradition of setting out to distinguish herself, she experimented with the conventional strategy and in Roger Ackroyd introduced a narrator, Dr. James Sheppard, a resident of the village who is revealed in the next-to-last chapter to be the murderer. In the last chapter, Sheppard leaves a suicide note explaining how he carried out his deceptions. Readers were stunned. Yes, the narrator was the murderer. Can you believe it? Watson had done it!

The kerfuffle that resulted from this trick--not to mention her mysterious disappearance that same year-helped make Christie one of the most famous writers in the world and, ultimately, the best-selling novelist of all time. Christie was never averse to manipulating readers' expectations. In Murder on the Orient Express, she dispensed with the single murderer after taxing the reader through a list of suspects who, as expected, all have a good motive for wanting Mr. Ratchett dead.

She certainly was not the first or only writer to play with the pattern. Doyle himself had written his 1917 Holmes story, "His Last Bow," in third person with no narrator, but it is one of his least memorable efforts and had no impact compared to Christies novel. Many writers credit Roger Ackroyd with opening up the artistic possibilities in crime fiction, preventing the Holmes-narrated-by-Watson pattern from stultifying and degrading the genre, even though it carries on to this day in the many popular cop and sidekick stories in all media. In 2013 the Crime Writers Association of the UK voted Roger Ackroyd the best crime novel of all time. I certainly would not agree, but it is yet another testimony to its influence.

That there is a controversy at all, however, implies that a mutual conspiracy of publishers, authors, and readers has created a set of rules that crime novels are obligated to obey. The existence of a genre implies a set of expectations in readers. Writers, by inclination or with an eye toward economic well-being, are usually happy to accommodate it. "If you have any comments," Erie Stanley Gardner once told an editor, "write them on the back of a check." And, of course, publishers, like many movie companies, are quite happy to repeat past successes and pleased to hand out a list of required and forbidden ingredients. Cats must not be tortured and killed in cozy mysteries, and erectile dysfunction is not an appropriate character element for hard-boiled detectives. Most such particulars are specific to the readership's taste and not as fundamental as the establishment of the narrator sidekick by Poe or the undermining of it by Christie's trick.

Much of the pleasure of the traditional mystery is that it is a game of playing "catch me if you can" with the author. Many times it isn't really about crime or its consequences, or even about character, but rather the comfortable pattern of the form. In many ways, the genre is an improvisational game--Dungeons and Dragons in a stately English manor. How many ways can one interestingly arrange and move the pieces on a chessboard? To someone who derives no pleasure from the game--like Edmund Wilson, who famously asked, "Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?"--it all seems pointless, the most boring sort of pastime. To those who enjoy the game, it requires no point. Yes, Mr. Wilson, it is pointless. What is your point? Yes, we might expect more out of what we like to call literature. So? Rarely do books promoted as literary meet expectations, but even if they all did, they play a different game with different intentions.

The attempts to codify mystery writing are rarely taken seriously by writers, even when the proposed rules illuminate the essence of the genre as it exists. Writers are a classroom of rude boys, ready to chuck spitballs and erupt with razzberries as soon as the teacher turns to the blackboard. Tell them they must follow a set of instructions and they will immediately think of ways to undermine and oppose it. The number of articles and books instructing us how to write a mystery is legion, and when these proscribe one thing or another, an imaginative writer's immediate thought is of how to subvert the rule and still produce something dazzling. Who are you to tell me what to write and how? You are not me, sport. Your name will not appear on my book.

One of the most legendary codes in mystery writing is that administered to those talented British writers invited to join the Detection Club. Founded in 1930 by G. K. Chesterton, Christie, A. A. Milne, Dorothy L. Sayers, and about two dozen of the other most eminent mystery writers of the time, the club requires an oath at each member's investiture. Originally written by Sayers but varied over the years, the applicant must swear to forswear various bad practices in mystery writing. "Do you promise," it asks, "that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?" Behind the mock seriousness of the rules, the masters are sniggering at inferiors who resort to any obvious, and often ludicrous, device to get themselves out of a corner. The Detection Club, after all, was a supper club for highly talented people with a similar vocation who would share tips, perhaps offer suggestions to one another, try out ideas, and laugh about particularly hideous examples they had encountered. Writers like to hang out with writers like cops like to hang out with cops.

It is extraordinary, however, that Christie or one of the others was threatened with expulsion because she had violated some part of the oath or the "Ten Commandments" composed by member Ronald Knox. Try to imagine them giving Agatha Christie the boot! Besides his mystery writing, Knox was a Catholic priest who published in theology and also a major radio personality. One of his broadcasts inspired Orson Welles's famous War of the Worlds dramatization. While some of Knox's commandments on mystery writing seem straightforward--"The detective himself must not commit the crime"--they are generally satirical (as are Knox's novels). "No Chinaman must figure in the story)' for example, is a cobblestone chucked at the appalling Yellow Peril authors of the time, like Sax Rohmer. In Knox's list, Watson is referred to as "the stupid friend of the detective" when none of the writers likely thought of him or their own "Watsons" in that way. Bank guards no doubt spend their shifts musing about how they could rob the place.

The only effect a list of strict rules could have on a creative bunch like the Detection Club would be to inspire them to get away with breaking them. In fact, Neustadt Prize-winning author Josef Skvorecky composed a collection of short stories called Sins for Father Knox in which he deliberately violated each of Knox's commandments and invited the reader not only to figure out the solution of the crimes but also to figure out which of the commandments was being broken. The book was perhaps too much of an inside joke, possibly not well translated, and elicited poor reviews. After calling Skvorecky's book an exercise in "ho-hummery," in which "the gimmick crushes the premise," Ross Thomas speculated that Knox should have had an eleventh rule: "If you're sure you're good enough to get away with it, ignore the other 10" (Los Angeles Times, 26 Feb. 1989).

Spoken like a true writer. Rules are out of the question. Even "guidelines" are suffocating for the imaginative. All writers invent within the contexts of their genres and times, but those who cannot reach beyond them are only good for a laugh.

University of Oklahoma

J. Madison Davis is the author of eight mystery novels, including The Murder of Frau Schutz, an Edgar nominee, and Law and Order: Dead Line. He has also published seven nonfiction books and dozens of short stories and articles, including his crime and mystery column in WLT since 2004.
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Title Annotation:CRIME & MYSTERY
Author:Davis, J. Madison
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 1, 2015
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